Industry Voices—From pagers and fax machines, healthcare moves slowly to modern communications

Doctor on phone/fax
Doctors are among the last professionals using pagers and fax machines. (Getty/IPGGutenbergUKLtd)

Communication is happening everywhere in healthcare—at every handoff and patient interaction, information is being exchanged.

Unfortunately, many healthcare professionals are using less than ideal tools for said communication. An estimated 85% of hospitals still rely on pagers, while fax machines account for about 75% of all medical communication.

It's not surprising, then, that this leads to communication bottlenecks and breakdowns that impact the quality and cost of healthcare, or worse, patient safety. In fact, communication breakdowns during handoffs are estimated to be a factor in 70% of medical error deaths, according to research from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. For an industry that is vital to the day-to-day well-being of everyone, saying the industry has lagged when it comes to advances in communication is a severe understatement.

Photo of Brad Brooks
Brad Brooks (TigerConnect)

The road to healthcare transformation must be paved with modern communication solutions that promote more efficient exchanges of information throughout the continuum of care delivery. Let’s take a look at the slow transformation occurring in healthcare and the steps that need to be taken to accelerate the path to a more efficient and modern communication model.

A slow shift from pagers to HIPAA-compliant text messaging

While most industries got rid of their pagers decades ago, healthcare has largely held onto these devices. Over the past decade or so, with the rise of HIPAA-compliant text messaging, healthcare has slowly started to replace pagers with smartphones enabled with secure messaging solutions.

Secure tools have brought a higher level of encryption and security to text messaging, meaning clinicians can freely discuss patients without fear of compromising protected health information. But its limitations have reached a breaking point. It now takes more advanced communication workflows and integrations to make text messages even more valuable to the healthcare industry. Savvy health systems are following three phases to fix broken communication:

1. Enhancing care coordination with role-based communication

Rarely do healthcare professionals know the specific team member on duty or on call in a particular role.

Consider an emergency department preparing for an incoming patient. The emergency room physician may require a support team that includes a surgeon, an anesthesiologist, perhaps a neurologist and so on. With typical communication tools this could send pagers buzzing around the hospital and across the city, as staff try to locate specific individuals, leading to the delays inherent in returning calls that might go to voicemail. And then there are other delays such as: Who is on duty? Who do we call?

With role-based communication, an entire emergency team can be mobilized within minutes. Role-based communication means select roles are set up and assigned to the appropriate staff members, and then linked to the scheduling system. This, in turn, allows organizations to quickly and efficiently locate, message and bring together the right care team to provide the best possible care for the patient.

The end result is improved efficiency and higher patient satisfaction, among several other benefits. Staff are freed from managing availability during shift handoffs, and unit secretaries save precious time looking up phone numbers or referencing printed schedules.

RELATED: Most hospitals still use mail or fax to exchange data

2. Connecting care teams across facilities

One of the biggest communication challenges in healthcare is seamlessly interacting throughout the continuum of care delivery.  This often involves communicating with colleagues at other facilities—such as a post-acute care facility or skilled nursing facility—to effectively manage patient care. To do so, organizations need access to professionals across the entire healthcare network regardless of their physical location.

The key to all of this? In a single word, integration. Simply put, organizations that are able to integrate with systems including electronic health records, nurse call systems, lab and imaging systems, scheduling, phone systems, paging systems and answering services/call centers are able to achieve the most effective cross-facility health system communication.

RELATED: Is it 1970 or 2019? Nine in 10 in healthcare industry still using fax machines, survey finds

With such integrations in place and all facilities aggregated under a single, searchable directory, care coordination that would normally trigger a flurry of calls and back-and-forth voice messages instantly becomes easier. Everything from coordinating patient transfers, patient discharge, scheduling a referred patient, requesting specialist consults and setting follow-up appointments all happen faster and with improved insight.

3. Bringing patients into the conversation

As healthcare becomes more and more consumerized, patients are taking greater control over their own health and well-being. Today's patients want their healthcare interactions to be as seamless as the interactions they have with consumer brands and services they use every day, which means they demand faster and more convenient access to health data and care consults.

RELATED: AMA, CHIME call for ONC to make major changes to data blocking regulation

Patient portals have tried to address the issue, but most have frankly been mostly useless and very often add to the workload of already overwhelmed physicians and patients. With patient portals, communication is open-ended and generally initiated by the patient. More advanced clinical communication solutions reverse this by putting clinicians in charge, allowing them to initiate direct text, voice and video conversations with patients and their family members within a finite time frame. Physicians can easily conduct onsite group video check-ins, clarify issues around medications, confirm follow-up appointments and track the healing process in a cost-effective, convenient, time-based way prior to, during and following a hospital stay or procedure.

Better communication across the care continuum is the key to solving many of the bottlenecks and care team collaboration breakdowns that cost healthcare organizations billions, add to hospital staff burnout and, worst case, cost lives. For organizations, the time is now to prioritize healthcare communications by seriously rethinking and overhauling the healthcare communication paradigm.

A seasoned entrepreneur in the tech sector, Brad Brooks co-founded and serves as CEO of TigerConnect, a healthcare communication platform.

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